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Waking Ned Devine, the first feature from English director Kirk Jones, turned into a Celtic-world tour. It was inspired by a newspaper article from South Wales, which Jones used to write a script set in Ireland, which then became a film shot on the Isle of Man.
“I was really interested in getting the story right, just getting the bones of the story,” remembers the London-based Jones, looking rather Californian in sandals, shoulder-length hair, and a purple shirt. “I didn’t set it anywhere to begin with. Then, when things started to get more serious, I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to set this somewhere now.’
“I did think of Wales, and I also thought of Ireland and Scotland,” he says of his comic tale of a remote village whose residents contrive to claim the massive lottery jackpot of a man who died without claiming it. “I wasn’t convinced it could work in England. I don’t believe there
are any tiny communities that don’t have buses running to them every day. I just sensed that Ireland is even more removed.”
Jones, who’s made his living directing TV commercials for most of the last decade, originally conceived the project as a short. “I discovered a newspaper clipping that said in South Wales, a postmistress put a sign in her window which said, ‘No I have not won the lottery.’ The locals said she had won, but that she was so tightfisted that she’d never tell anybody. I thought that was a really neat idea: someone in a small town winning a huge amount of money. That was a 10-minute script, which finished with them finding the guy who had won, and he was dead in his bed. He’d died from the shock of the win.”
When Jones showed the script to some colleagues, they suggested it contained the germ of a feature. “So then I took some time off and developed the script. I went to Ireland for three months, and suddenly it all came together. It was actually the first time I went to Ireland. I’d always meant to get there. Now that I’ve been there, I can’t believe I won’t go there every year or every other year for the rest of my life.”
By the time the script was completed, Waking Ned Devine was firmly rooted in Ireland, which made Jones a little nervous. “I was very aware that I was an English writer and director going to make an Irish project. But when I started to cast and I talked to the actors, not only did they think I was Irish when they read the script, which was a great start, but they said if anyone’s going to make a film about a tiny community like this, it should be an outsider. When an Irish writer-director gets involved, he can’t really see the eccentricities of the characters. I was really encouraged by that.”
There was one problem with Ireland. It didn’t seem to contain what Jones calls “the village in my mindthat was set on a hill, in the middle of nowhere.”
Nonetheless, he says, “as far as I was concerned, we were going to shoot in Ireland. The financing started to come together, and the producers looked at Ireland. There are some great tax breaks there. But oddly enough, it doesn’t make an incredible amount of sense to shoot in Ireland unless you’ve got a Braveheart. If you’ve got a 20-million-pound movie, you can save yourself a lot of money. If you’ve got a 1-million-pound film, which is what ours was, it works out to be more expensive to shoot there.
“We were approached at that point by the Isle of Man,” he continues, “which, in mythology, is supposed to be part of Ireland. This giant, Finn McCool, took a whole chunk of Ireland and threw it into the sea. And there’s a lake in Ireland that’s the same shape and size as the Isle of Man. So whenever I’m pressed, I say, ‘Well, it used to be Ireland.’”
The Isle of Man, anxious to establish itself as a cinematic location, didn’t just offer financial breaks. “It also allowed me to use the English crew that I was used to working with,” the director notes. “For my first film, I thought, that’s quite important. In Ireland, if you took advantage of the tax breaks, you’d have to use an Irish crew.”
Then Jones found that his new domain had more than a welcoming attitude. “Within a couple of hours, I discovered the village. I came over the brow of the hill and thought, ‘There it is.’ It was like a set. It just felt so perfect. More perfect when we realized that it was a working museum owned by the government. And the government were very keen for us to shoot there. Rather than knock on 80 doors and say, ‘Can we shoot in your village?’ we just had to go to one guy. It seemed too good to be true.”
Later, Jones discovered that another director had been there before him: Alfred Hitchcock, who shot The Manxman in 1928. “The two main locations I chose, unknowingly, were the same two he chose as well,” the director says. “So it all got a bit spooky there.”
Jones tried to win over the people living in the chosen village. “We invited them for sandwiches and a glass of wine,” he recalls. “They all stood there, just staring at me. They looked unhappy, and unsure of us being there at all. So I started to tell the story of the film, and fortunately they liked it and they laughed at all the right points.”
The director even enlisted some of the initially skeptical locals as extras: “I like it when the extras are slightly wooden,” he says. “It actually gives it a little bit of an edge.”
While some critics have suggested that the film’s scenario is altogether too whimsical, the director says that, when he was in Ireland, “I would sort of pitch the story to these old guys, and I didn’t meet one person who didn’t think it could ever happen. In fact, everybody I spoke to would say, ‘You know what? There was something very similar that happened a few years ago.’ I began to believe it could happen myself.”
The director is now back in Britain making commercials. “I don’t have to rush into my next project,” he says. “I can do the ads to make some money, which we all need to do. So I can take the time to make sure that I’m as proud of the next film as I am of Waking Ned.”
Jones never had a master plan for becoming a feature director, but now that he’s made the transition, he enjoys “a real sense of freedom” that comes with telling a story rather selling a product. “I love making commercials,” he maintains, “but when you get asked if you want a telephone on the table or a bowl of fruit, you make your choice. Then you say to the writer, to the art director, to the creative director, the clients hanging around, ‘I just said that we should have a thing of fruit on here. Is that all right?’ And they say, ‘Oh, should we? What do you think, Bob?’ Whereas with film, it’s just me. Completely on my own. Fruit. Bowl of fruit. That’s it. And you move on to more interesting things.’”
The buzz on Waking Ned Devine, which was well-received at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, has channeled some mainstream scripts in Jones’ direction. But he’s decided to write his next film rather than take a chance on one of the screenplays rejected by such British commercial-turned-feature directors as Alan Parker and Ridley and Tony Scott.
“I don’t think I could [accept someone else’s script], to be honest,” Jones protests. “I think I’d be useless.” Then he laughs. “You’ll probably meet me in about a year’s time and I’ll be saying, ‘I’m not doing anything under $50 million. And I’m doing the sequel, Devine II.’”Mark Jenkins